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Asbestos Won't Go Away

Mar 5, 2004 | THE SAGINAW NEWS &THE BAY CITY TIMES

Crews around the nation have worked since the 1980s to rid homes, schools and businesses of asbestos, but a new report predicts a growing wave of deaths.

A survey by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., hopes to bring attention to asbestos-related illnesses and deaths in the United States.

The report, based on government mortality records and studies, shows that asbestos-related diseases caused up to 58 deaths in Saginaw County since 1979.

The county ranks sixth among the state's 83 counties for such fatalities.

"This certainty suggests that we have got some work to do," said Terry Miller, a member of the Lone Tree Council, an environmental watchdog group.

"We have to find ways to phase out the use of asbestos to avoid future tragedies of this nature."

The greatest danger is from inhaling crumbled asbestos, which was widely used as an insulating material in buildings and on pipes.

The report states that since 1979, at least 1,140 people died from asbestos in Michigan; they were among 43,073 nationally.

The death rate apparently is accelerating; asbestos-related diseases now are killing 10,000 people a year in the United States, said Richard Wiles, the report's author and senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group.

"Anywhere there's a heavy industrial base, there's a problem with asbestos because companies used it for insulation," Wiles said.

"The automotive industry, historically, used quite a bit of asbestos in brakes, so that is a possible reason" for the deaths.

Founded in 1993, Environmental Working Group receives most of its funding from private charitable foundations. The organization comprises scientists, engineers, policy experts, lawyers and computer programmers.

In 2000, the group prompted an on-air apology from ABC's "20/20" staffer John Stossel over an inaccurate report about organic food.

While the organization indicated that more people are dying from asbestos, Wiles said the numbers don't suggest that more people are developing illnesses from the material.

What's happening, he said, is that people who were exposed in the 1960s, '70s and '80s are getting sick of dying.

"This is the beginning of a huge wave of deaths that we will have to deal with over the next 10 or 15 years," Wiles said.

"It's a problem that is still with us and is in epidemic proportions."

Thousands of victims across the country have sued manufacturers of goods containing asbestos.

Since the 1980s, litigants in some 3,400 asbestos-related lawsuits reached settlements in Saginaw County. They each sought more than $10,000.

Lane Clack, a Saginaw Township attorney who represents asbestos victims across the country, said there are about 150 pending asbestos lawsuits left in Saginaw.

"But most of them are building trades workers, and you don't see the (suits related to General Motors Corp.) like you used to," he said.

Saginaw County Chief Circuit Judge Leopold P. Borrello once said that if he handled the asbestos cases one at a time, it would take him 600 years.

Last year, Congress announced a proposal to form a $108 billion asbestos liability trust fund in exchange for an end to litigation, but lawmakers have not taken action on it.

Besides GM, other companies that were sued are those that supplied products to Defoe Shipbuilding Co. in Bay City.

Thomas E. Defoe of Saginaw Township, whose father was president of Defoe Shipbuilding, said the dangers of asbestos weren't known initially.

Defoe, 61, worked at the company from 1964 through its closing in 1976. He said he has no symptoms of asbestos-related diseases.

He said many ship-building materials used were specified in government contracts, with the government furnishing some items.

"This is what a lot of people weren't aware of," he said.

Defoe said he doesn't know of anyone in his family who has experienced sickness, but he is aware that former workers died from exposure.

Miller said government officials and others must work to limit asbestos contact.

"We have to make sure that this isn't repeated, that we're able to limit people's exposure," he said.


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